No NIT-picking: U is champ

Tim Klobuchar

NEW YORK — So this is the product of a failed season.
The head coach, Clem Haskins, snipping the last strand of the net and placing it around his neck — just as he did when the Gophers won the Big Ten and went to the Final Four a year ago, and smiling just as broadly.
The hometown kid, senior Eric Harris, hoisting his 9-year-old brother, Antoine, onto his shoulders after winning the NIT championship in front of other family and friends in his idea of the Sistine Chapel, venerable Madison Square Garden.
And the newcomer, junior transfer Kevin Clark, sitting in front of his locker looking like he had just run the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building — with good reason. Clark battled the flu and still delivered an MVP performance, scoring 58 often-acrobatic points in two games in New York and giving hope for the next season.
It capped a late-season run that transformed Minnesota’s 1998 season from one that produced mostly hard luck and hard knocks to one that produced hardware — the NIT championship trophy.
The rocky season the Gophers endured made Haskins’ exaggeration — that the Gophers’ 79-72 win over Penn State on Thursday meant they had captured one of two national titles — more excusable. Progressing from an 0-6 start in the Big Ten, with seemingly no chance at any postseason berth, to a net-cutting ceremony is a dizzying enough climb to make anyone lose some perspective.
The Gophers’ performances and emotions on display at the Garden Thursday night seemed to make everyone from the team to its fans forget that the NIT’s visibility is more on par with the Garden’s next attraction — the Barnum and Bailey circus — than the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were 15-15 after the Big Ten tournament, barely qualifying them for the NIT. Every game since has been a bonus.
“It feels great,” Haskins said. “We really didn’t have huge expectations for this year like we did last year. It’s more fun when no one expects you to do as much, and that’s what made this turnaround so rewarding. I’m just as happy and thrilled to be here as I was at the Final Four.”
Senior forward Sam Jacobson, who scored 23 points in the championship game, said the moment was one of his favorites as a Gopher.
“It’s up there,” he said. “There’s been so many, but right now, this is one of the best.”
Jacobson was one of a trio of Gophers who shouldered almost the entire offensive load. He, along with Clark and junior Quincy Lewis, combined to score 143 of Minnesota’s 170 points in the two games. Jacobson and Lewis were named to the NIT’s all-tournament team, and Clark was named tournament MVP.
Clark scored a career-high 30 points in the Gophers’ 91-89 overtime semifinal win over Fresno State on Tuesday, then nearly duplicated it with 28 in the final against the Lions.
The Savannah, Ga., native got most of his points on driving layups or free throws that resulted from his daring drives. What made Clark’s performance all the more impressive was the physical condition in which he played. He came down with the flu on Monday, causing a sore throat, a stuffed-up head and a fever — none of which were evident in his play.
“I’m tired,” Clark said after the title game. “Before the game I had to take some medicine. But this was the NIT championship, and I had to put it behind me.”
Said forward Miles Tarver: “Maybe we can bottle that flu and sell it. We can spread that to everyone on the team and hopefully coming into next season everyone will have it.”
Tarver, as usual, was joking. But catching the flu in a bottle doesn’t seem so far-fetched considering the Gophers were able to do the same with lightning near the end of the season. They won 13 of their last 18 games, seven of their last eight. They also showed their toughness in close games, winning six games by five or fewer points after their 7-10 start.
The most dramatic of the heart-stoppers was Tuesday’s win over Fresno State. With the Bulldogs leading 77-74 in the closing seconds, Clark missed a three-pointer. Lewis got the rebound in the left corner, pump-faked, stepped back behind the three-point line, and calmly buried the game-tying shot with 4.8 seconds left, forcing an overtime that Minnesota won.
“That’s why I took my time,” Lewis said. “I wanted to get behind the three-point line.”
Like the Gophers’ season, it was worth the wait.

THURSDAY’S SUMMARY
Gophers 35 44 — 79
Penn State 30 42 — 72

MINNESOTA (20-15)
Jacobson 7-12 6-7 23, Lewis 7-16 3-3 19, Sanden 0-1 0-0 0, Clark 9-13 8-9 28, Harris 1-8 5-8 7, Tarver 0-3 0-0 0, Nathaniel 0-0 0-0 0, Broxsie 1-3 0-0 2, Ja. Stanford 0-1 0-0 0, Schoenrock 0-0 0-0 0, Je. Stanford 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 22-27 79.
PENN STATE (19-13)
Ivory 2-5 0-0 6, Jackson 1-5 2-5 4, Booth 7-11 0-0 14, Crispin 4-12 0-0 10, Lisicky 3-12 2-5 11, Cline-Heard 5-8 4-8 14, Witkowsky 0-0 0-0 0, Grays 3-5 0-0 8, Stevenson 0-2 2-2 2, Branam 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 26-61 10-20 72.
3-Point goals — Minnesota 7-14 (Jacobson 3-4, Clark 2-3, Lewis 2-4, Ja.Stanford 0-1, Harris 0-2), Penn St. 10-25 (Lisicky 3-8, Ivory 2-4, Grays 2-4, Crispin 2-7, Branam 1-1, Stevenson 0-1). Fouled out — Lewis, Ivory, Crispin, Cline-Heard. Rebounds — Minnesota 37 (Tarver 8), Penn St. 38 (Booth 8). Assists — Minnesota 12 (Harris 7), Penn St. 19 (Crispin 8). Total fouls — Minnesota 18, Penn St. 22. A — 13,159.

TUESDAY’S SUMMARY
Fresno St. 32 36 12 — 89
Gophers 36 41 14 — 91

FRESNO ST.
Fowlkes 10-12 2-6 25, Roberson 4-10 0-0 10, Abney 5-9 3-3 13, Alston 4-12 2-2 13, Herren 4-10 4-5 14, Walton 3-14 0-1 7, Porter 3-4 0-0 7, Laurie 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 33-71 11-17 89.
MINNESOTA
Jacobson 9-15 3-5 24, Lewis 6-17 6-6 19, Sanden 1-2 0-1 2, Clark 9-16 9-9 30, Harris 4-13 4-5 12, Tarver 1-4 1-2 3, Nathaniel 0-4 1-2 1, Stanford 0-0 0-0 0, Broxsie 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-71 24-30 91.
3-Point goals — Fresno St. 12-29 (Fowlkes 3-3, Alston 3-9, Roberson 2-4, Herren 2-6, Porter 1-2, Walton 1-5), Minnesota 7-22 (Jacobson 3-6, Clark 3-8, Lewis 1-3, Harris 0-5). Fouled out — Roberson, Herren, Walton. Rebounds — Fresno St. 41 (Fowlkes 14), Minnesota 46 (Lewis 10). Assists — Fresno St. 19 (Alston, Herren 5), Minnesota 17 (Harris 5). Total fouls — Fresno St. 24, Minnesota 18. Technical — Roberson.